The blogosphere – a good place to hide (even from yourself)

I’m very doubtful about the concept of genuine community on the Internet, and even more doubtful about whether the attempt is a good thing. Eugene Peterson points out somewhere that a genuine church is a collection of diverse individuals whose unity in Christ somehow manages to triumph over their diversity in almost everything else (age, sex, race, economic circumstances, education, political views, theological views etc. etc.). In contrast, he says, a sect is a community of the like-minded. This, by the way, is one of my big disagreements with churches that ‘stream’ worship services to meet the ‘preferences’ of different groups (age and otherwise): quite apart from the consumer-mentality this teaches, it also tends to produce sects, rather than true communities.

Now a so-called ‘Internet community’ almost always evolves into a sect, in Peterson’s classification. Internet communities tend to form around blogs and tend to reflect the views of the blogger. Not surprisingly, the majority of commentators on any particular blog will be in general agreement with the views of the blogger, and those who are not in agreement quickly find themselves ‘ganged up on’ by the rest (for the record, I have been on both sides of this experience!). Most blogs quickly develop an ‘orthodoxy’ that is rarely challenged by the regulars, which makes these blogs a very comfortable place for the members of the ‘community’. In fact, for some people, they are far more comfortable than the real, flesh-and-blood communities they actually live in. It’s not uncommon for commentators to say things like ‘you people are the only ones who really understand me’ and ‘I get more support here than I do at St. So-and-So’s’.

But of course, the catch is that no one knows if what you are presenting on the blog, either as the author or as a commentator, is the real ‘you’. As Marianne says in the latest BBC production of Jane Austen’s ‘Sense and Sensibility’, ‘It is what we do, rather than what we say or feel, that makes us who we are’. And in the world of the Internet, no one knows who we really are. I have been described in very generous terms by some people I’ve ‘met’ in the blogosphere, and of course this is very gratifying to my ego and I like it as much as the next person. But the fact is that no one I ‘meet’ on the Internet really knows me. They know what I say, they meet the persona I create for myself (how telling it is that pseudonyms, screen names, and avatars are so popular in the blogosphere!), but they don’t meet the real ‘me’. And, try as I might, it’s almost impossible to avoid creating a deceptively rosy persona for oneself in the anonymous world of the blogosphere. If I’m not careful, I might even begin to believe in it myself! As Jeremiah says, ‘the heart is deceitful above all things’.

I might give the impression on this blog (and in the comments I leave on other blogs) of being a good, conscientious priest, but of course you, my readers, don’t really know whether or not that’s true (unless you happen to be past or present parishioners of mine!). I might give the impression of being a loving husband and father and grandfather, but in order to be really sure that’s the case, you’d need to consult my wife, my children, and my grandson. I might give the impression of being a patient and caring and compassionate person, but unless you see me on a regular basis, and not just when I’m trying to sound good, you have no way of knowing whether or not that is the case.

Internet ‘communities’ can be very gullible and very deceptive. I have not been in the habit of filling my blog with stories about difficulties in my parish or my relationship with those who are ‘over me’ in the ministry – mainly because I think those issues should be worked out face to face with those who are directly involved, not gossiped about to disembodied people with screen names and avatars in the anonymous world of the Internet. But the real problem, of course, is that there are two sides to every story, and unless a blogger has an unusual level of honesty and self-knowledge, it’s only natural that what you get from them is their side of the story. The pastor who is having difficulty with his or her congregation will usually give the impression of being the patient and compassionate shepherd (or the brave and visionary leader, depending on the culture of the church!); it’s the congregation, of course, who are unappreciative or unsupportive or unsympathetic or unresponsive or just downright unChristian. If the blog is being run by a member of the congregation, then, naturally, you’ll get the opposite viewpoint. A priest having trouble with their bishop will unavoidably tell the story in terms that make it clear what an unfeeling ecclesiocrat the bishop actually is (and some clerical blogs are anonymous precisely for the reason of allowing the cleric to blow off steam like this). Unless one of the regular commentators is actually part of the situation and is willing to blow the whistle from time to time and say, “Look, that’s not actually the whole story…”, the others are none the wiser.

Experience teaches us that life is messy, and people are not just one-dimensional. There are very rarely goodies and baddies; there are just ordinary flawed human beings, people who get some things right and some things wrong, people who are sometimes loving and sometimes selfish. There are not usually ‘haters’ and ‘fascists’ and ‘revisionists’ and ‘leftists’; there are human beings trying to pay their mortgages and do a reasonable job at work and be better parents and love God as best they know how. And of course, when it comes to the real flesh-and-blood people in my family, and my parish, and my circle of friends, I see that flawed and yet admirable humanity most clearly and am most likely to cut people some slack because of it (or, at other times, pluck up my courage and challenge them).

It’s more difficult to do that in the blogosphere, because there we don’t encounter the real multi-dimensional persons who exist outside the ‘matrix’. We encounter what they present to the world, but we have no way of knowing how real their persona actually is, and we will never know that until we wash dishes with them, or play music with them, or receive communion regularly with them, or get our hands dirty cleaning up the churchyard with them. Until that happens, we’d be wise to remind ourselves that there’s a lot we don’t know about the people we’re talking to online, and there’s probably a lot they’re not telling us (intentionally or unintentionally) in the stories they share.

Now is a good time to buy a Waterson:Carthy, Martin Carthy, or Norma Waterson CD.

If you had been thinking of sampling a CD from British folk veterans Martin Carthy and/or Norma Waterson, now would be a good time to do it. Norma has been sick for the last three or four months, Martin has been at her side in hospital, and so there has been no income coming in from touring. Here’s the full story:

This page is intended to give brief details of any benefit events being organised for Norma Waterson, so that others wishing to put on an event can avoid clashes with other, similar ones.  It is, at the moment, very brief – but we hope that it will fill up as time passes.

To clarify a point that several people have raised: this is being done with Martin Carthy’s approval.

For anyone not au fait with what’s prompted this, the following should help:

Many MT readers will be aware that Norma Waterson has been critically ill in hospital for the past three months.  Last November, towards the end of the brilliant ‘Gift’ tour, Norma got an infection in her knee.  She went to the closest hospital, Warrington, where they prescribed strong antibiotics, to be taken as an in-patient.  Two days later she was on dialysis and a ventilator in the Intensive Care Unit.  Our dear Norma had been in the ICU for 11 weeks! with Martin by her side, loving her and making sure she is getting all the necessary attention.

She has at last been moved to an ordinary ward, but the journey back to normality will be a long climb; of course if she could climb there’d be no problem, but after 12 weeks in bed there’s not much of her body that has any muscle power at all.  And having had a tracheostomy in her throat for most of that time, she’s not even talking or eating normally yet.

As well as an appalling physical and emotional situation for the family, there is the little matter of finance when the breadwinners are unable to work (Martin has only been able to do 3 or 4 gigs in all that time!).  Some of their friends in music – being able now to think about the future rather than just the present – have realised what an awful extra burden this has/will consitute, and are organising benefit events.  Keep your eyes and your purses open, and please consider the possiblities for your club or organisation.  We will try to liaise with all such organisers, and with Alan Bearman, their Agent, to see that things go smoothly, and don’t clash with each other.  If you do consider organising some kind of benefit event, please let us know.

Thanks to the Musical Traditions page – go there for a full list of benefit concerts and events. None of the concerts are on our side of the Atlantic, so those of us in North America who love Martin and Norma and their music can only donate to the PayPal site, or buy a few more CDs.

If you’ve never heard Martin and Norma’s music, look them up at we7 and have a listen. They are two of the greatest living English folk musicians and Martin is one of the most original guitarists playing today. Why not take this opportunity to buy some of their music and help them out in their time of need?


Catching up a bit

I don’t very often write personal news items on this blog, but every now and again I feel like doing it. This won’t be very polished and it won’t be in any particular order. Here are a few of the things that are going on in my life.

On February 1st I celebrated my eleventh anniversary as pastor of St. Margaret’s church. It seems a long time now since the Tuesday morning when I started in this parish; many people have come and gone and the congregation is very different now than it was back in the year 2000. In the last couple of years we’ve had a real influx of families with very young children, and we’re very thankful that they find our church to be a relaxed and welcoming place for them. After eleven years it’s a joy to know a congregation as well as I know this one, and to be well-known by them as well. My friend Reed Fleming has been reading a book about the benefits of stability; I concur (a fella called Eugene Peterson has been saying the same thing to pastors for quite a while now!).

We passed another significant anniversary on January 21st when our first (and, at the moment, only) grandson Noah turned one year old. He is walking all over the place now and it is a joy to watch him grow and learn. He’s a really busy boy and likes to be doing things, but every now and then I manage to catch one of his hugs, and they’re precious when they’re on offer. He likes music and playing with toy cars and walking in circles around the house, and he seems to like his Grandma and Grandpa too.

Reading-wise I’ve been slowly working my way through the Authorized (King James) Version of the Bible, which I’ve never read much before. I’m up to the book of Numbers now, and I read from the Psalms every day too, and am amazed at how much I’m enjoying it. I read aloud whenever I can and enjoy savouring the words in my mouth; I find the poetic language really adds to the experience. I don’t expect I’ll make the AV my main version but I will be glad to have read it through.

Marci read Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project and really enjoyed it; she got me into it as well and I’ve read it through once. I’m not sure if I’m going to take on a full-blown year-long happiness project as Gretchen did, but she has me convinced of a few of her central ideas – especially the idea that working on your own happiness is not a selfish thing, because happy people tend to be more generous and outgoing, and are more likely to make a positive difference to others. I also like her emphasis on doing as a road to feeling, rather than the other way around (don’t wait until you feel good before doing the right thing; do it anyway, and the feeling will probably follow along). And I like the fact that she quotes Dr. Samuel Johnson so much! Her blog is worth reading and it always gives me a lift.

Last weekend Dana Wylie and I presented a workshop which we called ‘Discovering the World of Traditional Folk Music‘ at Expressionz Café here in Edmonton. About fifteen people took part, aged from early teens to early sixties, and it was a participatory experience from the start. Dana and I shared our own experiences of discovering traditional folk music, and we then raised the question ‘What is it?’ I played ‘The Cruel Brother‘ and got people to analyse what made it different from the average contemporary song; people started diving in with their ideas, and we were off to the races! After spending an hour or more on the distinctive features of traditional songs, we turned to the sources and talked about the most significant recordings, print resources, and Internet sites. We then spent a significant chunk of time on alternative guitar tunings before cruising to a close with a consideration of the history of one of the best known traditional songs, ‘Scarborough Fair’. Dana and I were gratified by the enthusiasm of the participants and it was a special joy to see so many young people there.

On the negative side, I’ve been having a few health challenges lately. Pain in my left arm took me to the doctor before Christmas; subsequent x-rays showed arthritis in the neck which was pinching nerves. There’s no real cure for this although physiotherapy helps a bit; if you see me walking in a strangely elongated fashion, that’s because apparently my relaxed slouch is not good for the neck bones! Holding your head high really is the better way! More recently I’ve been having some problems with my left eye; apparently it’s a common thing with advancing age, but the vitreous has begun to detach from the retina, and has snagged a blood vessel on the way down, so there’s a whole dirty curtain of little dots and a few blotches of blood swimming across my field of vision right now. I have perfectly clear vision if I just close my left eye!

A member of our congregation died last night. He was in his eighties and had been suffering from cancer for a couple of years (his second bout with cancer). For the past few weeks I had been taking communion to him and his wife in their home once a week, and last week when I was there he remarked about how much peace and comfort the sacrament gave him. Last night after he died the family and I gathered around his bed to read scripture and pray, and his funeral will be at our church next week. Just by virtue of being a pastor, people invite me into these significant events in their lives all the time. It’s a privilege and a trust, and I am grateful for it.

There are many other things to give thanks for. I’m happy to have been married for over thirty-one years to a wise, caring and grace-living woman who has a lot of patience for the failings of her very imperfect husband. I’m thankful that my kids seem to love their parents and each other as well, and that we see a lot more of them than some other parents I know. I’m thankful that my Mum and Dad have a computer and we can keep in touch by email and send them photographs regularly so that they feel a connection with our daily lives even though they are so far away. I’m thankful for the circle of friends who make my life so enjoyable, both near and far away, and for the chance to play music and listen to music regularly with some of those friends. I’m thankful for a worthwhile job serving a good congregation who pay me decently and treat me well and who have become my primary spiritual family. And I’m thankful to be a follower of Jesus and for the continual comfort and challenge I get from his vision of God and God’s dream for the world.


Just the basics of following Jesus

An American woman named Jessie was once touring England with a team of American handbell ringers. One night on their tour they were attending a formal dinner, and Jessie noticed that there was no napkin at her place setting, so she asked one of the waiters if he could please bring her a napkin. He seemed a little surprised, but nonetheless he went off to comply with her request. He seemed to be taking a long time about it, and Jessie wondered what was happening. Eventually the head waiter came to her with a strange looking package in his hand. “We have no idea why you would need this, Ma’am”, he said, “but here is your napkin”. He then proceeded to hand her a baby’s diaper.

Winston Churchill is reputed to have remarked that the English and the Americans were ‘two peoples divided by a common language’. One of the problems of being divided by a common language, of course, is that while your friend may be using the same vocabulary as you, she is probably using a different dictionary. You assume that you know what she is talking about, but then along comes an incident like the one Jessie experienced, and you realise that words can have many different meanings (in case you’re wondering, in England Jessie should have asked for a ‘serviette’!).

What about the word ‘love’? Surely we all know what that means, don’t we? After all, we’ve just had Valentine’s Day! But Valentine’s Day simply illustrates the problem. The Valentine’s Day version of love is mainly about romantic feelings, or ‘falling in love’ – an experience completely beyond your control that hits you like a bolt of lightning and feels so good that you pray it lasts forever – although, of course, you know that it often doesn’t.

If you’ve been educated in the Valentine’s Day version of love, as most people in our modern world have, you will have a lot of difficulty understanding what the Bible is all about. When the Bible uses the word ‘love’ it is rarely referring to feelings at all. The Greek word for our modern concept of love, ‘eros’, is almost never used in the New Testament. Instead, the most common word is ‘agapé’, which is about actions and choices and sacrificing yourself to bless others, whether they deserve it or not, whether you feel like it or not.

And so, in the third chapter of his first letter, the old apostle John feels the need to explain to us exactly what love is. ‘We know love by this, that (Jesus) laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another’ (1 john 3:16 NRSV). Jesus’ act of self-sacrifice in giving himself on the cross to save the world defines what love looks like for followers of Jesus: it is unconditional, it is self-sacrificial, it is about actions more than feelings, and it is centred on the good of the other.

And we are called to imitate this sort of love. We may not be able to sit down and muster up a good feeling for the people around us, but that’s not the point; we can still act in a loving way toward them. John gives us an example of this right away:

How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action (1 John 3:17-18).

This passage convicts me right away, because I am a person who loves words and works with words. But my words, no matter how eloquent they may be, are not impressive in God’s sight; it is my practical actions, my choosing to help those who are in need, that really count. As one of the characters in the recent miniseries of Jane Austen’s ‘Sense and Sensibility’ says, ‘It is not what we say or feel that makes us what we are – it is what we do – or fail to do’.

John sums it all up for us at the end of the chapter:

And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us (1 John 3:23).

Of course, this can sometimes be more complicated than it sounds. Some people talk, for instance, as if love for others means letting them get away with anything they want, but Paul’s description of love says that it ‘does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth’ (1 Corinthians 13:6). Yes, love is indeed the most important commandment, but sometimes we need God’s other commandments to give us guidance as to how exactly we should go about loving a person in a given situation.

Nonetheless, at the heart of the matter stands love as Jesus defined it: not words but actions, not feelings but choices, not self-absorption but a resolve to be a blessing to others. This is how God loves us, this is what Jesus demonstrated when he died for us, and this is how we are called to love one another.


We walked together through the autumn woods,
her hand in mine held fast in quiet grace;
we watched a yellow leaf fall from a branch,
and drift down slowly to its resting place.

A red-capped woodpecker was darting there,
driving its beak into a grey-clad tree,
and on a bridge we stopped and stood awhile
savouring joy in all that we could see.

And all the paths we walked that peaceful day
were like the years together on the Way.

And everything we saw fulfilled its call,
its place within the wider story;
and so our love was not too plain or small
to share the God-light and the glory.

And all the paths we walked that peaceful day
were like the years together on the Way.

And everything we saw fulfilled its call,
its place within the wider story;
and so our love was not too plain or small
to share the God-light and the glory.

©Tim Chesterton, Oct. 16th, 22nd 2006


What I’ll be doing Saturday afternoon

Discovering the World of Traditional Folk Music
A workshop with Dana Wylie and Tim Chesterton

February 12th 2011 1 – 5 p.m. at Expressionz Café
9938 70th Avenue NW, Edmonton, Alberta

As a musician, are you looking for a huge body of material that tells great stories, has wonderful melodies, can be changed and adapted however you like, and is totally copyright-free? Welcome to the world of traditional folk music! These are the songs that were passed down from generation to generation over hundreds of years; they have been adapted endlessly in many different times and places, and continue today to inspire and delight audiences around the world.

In this workshop Dana and Tim will talk about why they are so excited about traditional folk music, how they have used it themselves, and how it has influenced their own songwriting. They will give examples of some of the most enduring songs from the tradition and how they have evolved over the centuries (using their own performances as well as audio and video recordings), and they will identify the most important resources (CDs, books, websites etc.) for people wanting to further explore the world of traditional music. Finally, because open guitar tunings often feature in this kind of music, they will demonstrate some of the most important open tunings (Drop D, DADGAD, open C, open G), share some chord charts and give examples of songs that can be played in these tunings.

Tickets are available at the door for $20.

Dana Wylie
Dana Wylie is widely considered to be one of Edmonton’s most beloved performers and songwriters, as evidenced by the recent appearance of her third and latest album, Something’s Going to Happen Here, at Number 25 on CKUA’s Top 100 for 2010 list. She has travelled and toured extensively in North America, Britain and Asia, and it was while living in England that she began to develop an ever-expanding interest in the traditional folk music of the British Isles and North America. Dana is currently working on her fourth album, which will feature a mix of original and traditional songs.

Tim Chesterton
Tim Chesterton sees himself primarily as an interpreter of traditional folk songs. He is inspired by the rich heritage of folk music – songs written in previous centuries, usually by unknown authors, and then passed down by word of mouth, moulded and re-moulded by each successive generation. Tim wants to take his place in that tradition, passing on these wonderful old songs to new audiences today. He especially loves songs that tell stories, and his own songwriting is mainly in the storytelling vein. His repertoire also includes instrumental pieces, both his own compositions and also traditional and contemporary tunes.

Tim plays solo and also shares stages regularly with good friends. His musical influences include Nic Jones, Kate Rusby, Martin Carthy, Martin Simpson, James Keelaghan, John Renbourn, Planxty, Jacqui McShee and Maddy Prior.